A Food Conundrum in Rural Illinois

NAC’s new Urban Leaders Fellow explains why so few people in Illinois get their produce from the state’s 76,000 farms.

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Jori Lewis recently joined NAC as our second Urban Leaders Fellow. Jori has reported for outlets such as Public Radio International and Salon.com. She previously received a Metcalf Institute Fellowship. Jori will be reporting on southern Mississippi River cities such as Memphis and St. Louis.

I grew up in a small city in downstate Illinois that was surrounded by miles and miles of farmland. Illinois, outside of Chicago, is rural America—all contracting small towns complete with dying main streets, grain silos like skyscrapers and tractors on two-lane roads. The Illinois State Department of Agriculture says that the state has 76,000 farms that take up about 80 percent of the land in Illinois. But farm fresh produce, milk or meat is hard to come by in an Illinois city. This week, a study from the Illinois Local and Organic Food and Farm Task Force reported that Illinoisans spend only a fraction of their food expenditures on Illinois products.

This is no surprise to me. Sure, there are farmer’s markets, community-supported agricultural programs and vendors on the side of the road selling popular fruits at peak points during the summer. But my parents, who live in Illinois and were buying organic and local long before it was popular, had never even heard of a CSA until recently. That’s because fruit and vegetable farmers are in the minority here. Most of those 76,000 Illinois farms are growing corn and soybeans for feed and export.

The task force’s prescriptive is to support local farms in communities close to urban centers. There’s already a tentative project in the Cook County Forest Preserve close to Chicago, where farming ground is available for lease. Nearby Kane County also has a farmland preservation program to keep farms from succumbing to the pressure of suburban sprawl. In fact, the task force suggests that small farmers and organic farmers can work with land preservation advocates who want to put urban and suburban land in trust. Some farming processes, they argue, can complement habitat preservation.

All in all, advocates see this push for local food and local farms as a way to get fruits and veggies to food-poor urban (and rural!) areas and as a way to economically develop those small downstate towns that have seen better days.

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